While Western leaders reaffirmed their commitment to NATO at the recent Chicago summit – pledging to conduct a responsible drawdown in Afghanistan, cooperate more on military capabilities in Europe, and enhance global partnerships – the future of the future of the Alliance, and indeed the entire European project itself, is still cast in a cloud of uncertainty. Four years into the current eurocrisis, new political tensions have emerged between EU member states and old divisions between Europe’s core and its periphery have been reinforced.

But the eurocrisis is not just a political and economic challenge – it also presents a serious challenge to Europe’s long-term security and, as a result, to transatlantic solidarity. There is no reason to believe that transatlantic security cooperation would remain immune to a standstill or a complete collapse of the European integration process, as we argue in detail in a study published at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Quite the reverse, if current trends persist, the Alliance should prepare for a dim, if not dismal future. While the United States is increasingly bent on pivoting towards Asia, U.S. policymakers have continuously sent the message to their European counterparts that NATO will remain relevant to Washington only as long as it lives up to certain military expectations.

Unfortunately, most European nations have not paid heed to this message. The year 2012 will mark the first time that Asian military spending will surpass that of Europe – just one of the countless signs that Europe is on a downward trajectory towards strategic irrelevance. If current trends hold, Europe in a couple of years will not be able to conduct even a limited Libya-like operation, which is an alarming prospect.

As for now, NATO’s smart defense and EU’s pooling and sharing concepts are seen as the primary tools for tackling Europe’s capability problem. However, doing more with significantly less is impossible. Less money means fewer capabilities, and this cannot be an option in a world that is far from peaceful and stable.

While economic challenges remain a top priority, this does not mean Europe is not facing growing security challenges. On the contrary, conflicts and crises of even larger scale and greater impact than the ones recently seen in Libya or Syria cannot be ruled out in Europe’s vicinity in the years to come.

The growing competition in the global commons and their vulnerability to various state and non-state actors – such as the increasing number of cyber-attacks against Western nations or piracy off the coast of Somalia – should all be a concern for European nations. Meanwhile, the willingness and ability of the United States to provide for security in the full spectrum of these domains, which Europe so heavily relies upon, is in decline.

Even more importantly, European publics tend to overlook the reality that peace and stability in Europe cannot be taken for granted. Instead, they are a result of the transatlantic Alliance and of European integration. The true value of the “security goods” NATO provides can only be determined if the organization were to disappear. Sustaining the Alliance in the absence of a common imminent threat requires a certain level of convergence of economic, political and security interests among European states. If European integration were to wreck havoc, prompting an inordinate disintegration of Europe, NATO too would feel the pain. The future of NATO is accordingly intrinsically embedded into the future of European integration.

In the new challenging geopolitical environment, with a changing global power distribution and with new security threats on the rise, Europe needs to boost its defense not just because of NATO, but even more so because of itself. With current European defense budgets this is only possible through increased cooperation in the defense sphere. Effective and smart defense integration requires a comprehensive approach. Similar to NATO’s “Smart Defense” concept, which aims to do more with less, “Smart Integration” should be at the heart of European security policy, involving coordinated efforts in defense, industrial, economic, social policies, taking into account the unique features of Europe’s history and diversity.

In response to those who fear the loss of national sovereignty over defense policy, the real question facing most European nations is not whether to have the most urgently needed capabilities alone or to share it with allies, but whether to have them at all. Furthermore, the most critical shortcomings of European nations involve top tier reconnaissance, surveillance, and precision targeting capabilities – assets that are as useful for expeditionary missions overseas as for traditional Article five defense roles. To this regard, Smart Defense and Smart Integration, involving other overlapping policies would result in more resources for basic equipment, weapons and training – all crucial elements of territorial defense.

While the recent Chicago Summit demonstrated some modest progress in the Alliance, the real work should only begin. In order to secure the strategic relevance of NATO in the 21st century, Europe needs to realize that its peace and stability is not for free. Hence, Europeans should grab the opportunity of the current crisis, and start together taking defense seriously.

By Erik Brattberg and Gergely Varga. Both are visiting scholars at the Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins University, SAIS, Washington D.C.

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